Friday, November 30, 2018

DAY 5: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable

Black PerspectivesAAIHSFrederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018
The AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable in Black Perspectives concludes today with Christopher Shell's interview of Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. Morris heads the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and, as the title of the organization suggests, is a direct descendant of Frederick Douglass. His mother was Nettie Douglass, who was the daughter of Frederick Douglass III, who was the son of Joseph Douglass, who was the son of Charles Douglass, who was the son of Frederick Douglass. That's not all! His mother's mother, who married Frederick Douglass III, was Booker T. Washington's granddaughter.

The posts this week have all spoken to the past and present, describing Douglass's life, vision of the United States, and its connection to the state of our nation today. Morris, whose family is rooted in that past, tells of the ways that he sees his role in taking that legacy forward, into the future, through his work against human trafficking, today's trade in human bodies and lives, and educating children.

Morris is also a wonderful, generous man. He came to speak at Le Moyne a few years ago and our African American students lined up just to shake his hand and have him sign fliers, posters, anything they could find. One professor brought his son, who was about ten (maybe), who sat entranced. He feels the history, too, it is real for him, a live, electric wire from the past, through him, and into the future.

The craft of history is a collective endeavor, really, the study of different aspects of an individual's life, placing that individual within the context of others. It's like turning a kaleidoscope or circling around a statue or playing with the lenses on a camera. To be able to contribute a piece or perspective to that study, and to have others find that piece or perspective useful are two thrills of doing history. This has really been such an honor to be included among this group in this forum.

Indeed, it has been an honor, over this past year, to be part of so many events that bring people together who approach Douglass from so many different angles, disciplines, and ages. I've spoken in libraries, National Parks, elementary schools, Ivy League Universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, to children, adults, librarians, teachers, rangers, students of all sorts, people of all sorts. I've spoken in the west, the north, the south, the east, in England, in France. My book won two prizes and been nominated for a third (which I will not win and have no business winning, but it's still nice to have your work recognized). I feel that my fifteen minutes of fame are coming to an end, but the book is out there and will work its magic into the scholarship and interpretations over time. That's how historiography works.

I have had some significant pain and sadness in my life this past year, too, that overshadows the good more often than not. Still, I've been scrappy in spite of myself, to a certain degree charmed, and very very lucky. Definitely lucky.

From what I understand, Black Perspectives will continue with more Frederick Douglassness next week, publishing pieces from the conference that took place in Paris in early October. (I know this because eminent historian Douglas Egerton will have a post on Black Reconstruction from the concluding roundtable in which he and Manisha Sinha participated.)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

DAY 4: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Forum (Anna Douglass Day!)

Black PerspectivesAAIHSFrederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018
Anna Douglass, Frederick's first wife, takes center stage (probably to her chagrin) in today's Frederick Douglass Forum in AAIHS's Black Perspectives.

I'd summarize, but that might defeat the purpose of sending readers over to read the post there. Suffice to say that I wanted to place Anna Douglass at the center of the story, to explain the difficulties of knowing her, and to consider ways to understand her as her, not as a projection of what she should be.  As I said on the book of face, one of her key features is that she was not and is not anything anyone else wants her to be. She was and is herself, Anna. If she did not read, let her not read. If she got frustrated and angry with her husband, let her be frustrated and angry with her husband. He probably was a lot of work on a daily basis from her point of view. If she did not want to be known -- well, I'm not letting that one go, but I do realize that was her choice. 

She will, of course, be waiting on the Other Side -- if there is an Other Side -- to smack me. Although, I sense that a withering stare was more her style. 

In any case, thank you to Keisha N. Blain, Brandon R. Byrd, and their staff for putting together this fantastic roundtable and for inviting me to be included in such illustrious, smart company. May this piece do all involved (including Anna Douglass) justice!

Tomorrow, Christopher Shell will interview Kenneth B. Morris, Jr..

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

DAY 3: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable

Black Perspectives, AAIHSFrederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018
Today's entry in the AAIHS Black Perspectives Frederick Douglass Forum comes from Noelle Trent, Director of Interpretation, Collections, and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. If you ever get the chance to visit that museum, bring Kleenex. The experience will astound you, taking you through the narrative of the Movement and the people who made it happen. No surprise, then, that someone who works there has also written a dissertation on Douglass and American exceptionalism, which I hope she publishes quite soon.

In "Frederick Douglass and the United States Constitution," Trent traces Douglass's interpretations and reinterpretations of the Constitution. She also pulls out a great quote from the Revolution that makes defending Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton very difficult during the late 1860s and early 1870s, a legacy that still haunts feminism to this day. More importantly, Trent reveals the ways that, even after the Reconstruction amendments passed, African Americans remained marginal in this idea of an American nation. The Liberty Party's vision of abolition may have passed, but the Garrisonian vision still had -- has -- a long way to go.

Tomorrow, I'm up, hoping to evoke sympathy for Anna Douglass as she was rather than as so many people then and now wanted and want her to be.

By the way, the mural there, as the caption on the AAIHS website note, is from Belfast. Here is the full mural from 2011, when I lived in Ireland for the year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

DAY 2: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable

Black Perspectives, AAIHSFrederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018

In "Frederick Douglass's Vision of America," which has previously appeared in Public Seminar as "This is Your America: Why Frederick Douglass Still Matters," Roberts addresses his fellow American citizens with the same stinging indictment of hypocrisy that Douglass did in his own time. He points out the yawning gap between the ideal of "America" and its reality. 

I may actually have my students read this piece in the next week because Roberts gets at an idea that I've been trying to impress upon them this semester in teaching the first half of the U.S. history survey. I'm teaching another course with a philosopher, and she has introduced me to some theory that has given me the tools to shape some of what I already know through history. The ideas of racial projects, hegemony, and counter-hegemony have helped to organize this story that I'm helping these students learn. 

Hegemony is that ideal, the story that some Americans like to believe about the country, the history that they learned in high school that bored the crap out of most of them. Counter-hegemony -- or counter-narrative, as I'm often calling it -- is the push-back, the Douglasses and Turners and Veseys and Truths and Tubmans and Tecumsehs and Fanny Wrights and so on and so forth. The ones forcing America to live up to this ideal. The whole thing, the whole mess and conflict becomes a racial project, or a series of competing racial projects that are, in the end, a national project. What is race? What does that mean? Who decides? What does it look like? What forms of power, institutionalize and otherwise, are involved? What forms of resistance? 

But, I digress, having just read Roberts piece after teaching that class and the Crisis of the 1850s. 

David Blight turns to "Frederick Douglass's Childhood of 'Extremes," looking at both the violence that characterized the young Frederick's youth and his process of remembering it. Blight has that ability to tell a story so simply that you don't realize just how complex and layered it is until you reflect. When I look at the young Frederick, I think of a child who was profoundly abused down to his very soul. That fueled his sense of justice and his rage and, I think, a need for love, just as a man and a human. Blight's piece highlights that in no uncertain terms.  

At the end of his piece, he imagines Douglass taking up his pen to delve into his pain and set down his autobiography, but I would like to add in two figures who could easily have helped him in the process. The first was his wife, Anna, who grew up to age sixteen in Caroline County and then lived in the same part of Baltimore as Frederick. The other was their friend and "adopted sister" (her term, historians would call this part of a fictive kin network, and Ezra Greenspan intends to include her in his study of the extended family), who went by the names Harriet Bailey, Ruth Cox, Harriet Adams, and Ruth Adams (Adams being her married last name). She hailed from Easton, where she lived into her twenties, in Talbot County. While Douglass' memory was prodigious, as I imagine people's memories were in those days moreso than now, there is certainly no reason that these two women did not help him along with some details of their own. Indeed, Douglass mentions a cousin of his wife who was beaten to death by Mrs. Giles Hicks, suggesting that Anna gave him some material herself. 

Tomorrow, Noelle Trent's piece will appear, followed by mine about Anna Douglass on Thursday. Friday, Christopher Shell will interview Kenneth B. Morris, Jr

Once again, the comments there (and here) are moderated in order to weed out verbally-abusive trolls desperate for attention. The AAIHS has had more than their share of problems in that department, as you can imagine.

Monday, November 26, 2018

DAY 1: AAIHS Frederick Douglass Roundtable

Black Perspectives, AAIHS, Frederick Douglass Forum, 26-30 Nov 2018

This week Black Perspectives, the online journal of the African American Intellectual History Society, will be running a round table on Frederick Douglass. This forum will feature a series of historians expounding on topics of their research and specialty as they relate to our favorite subject, Frederick Douglass. On the final day, Christopher Shell will interview Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., descendant of both Douglass and Booker T. Washington, and head of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives.

Today, Manisha Sinha traces the theme of fugitivity -- the state and experience of being a fugitive --- through Douglass's life, showing the ways it informed his criticism of the United States and his vision for its future. Sinha delivered this piece as part of a roundtable on Douglass at the Paris conference in October. The roundtable there asked each participant to choose a word to describe Douglass, thus the framing of her contribution here. As always, her thoughtful consideration of the theme illuminates and connects various points in Douglass's long life.

Christopher Bonner turns to that latter point, discussing the ways that Douglass helped Americans imagine, in specific terms, a racially-just nation. Naturally, all African Americans wanted, demanded, a nation that included them as free and equal citizens. Yet, distilling millions of peoples' hopes into a crystalline set of goals and actions requires a man of electric vision. Bonner sketches the means by which Douglass accomplished that task.

Contributions from David Blight and Neil Roberts appear tomorrow, Noelle Trent's will appear on Wednesday, a post about Anna Douglass by yours truly receives Thursday's spot, and the interview with Morris ties the whole week up on Friday.

You may, of course, engage with the authors in the comments section on their posts at the forum. Don't be alarmed if your comment doesn't appear immediately, however, because they are moderated (just as comments here on this blog are moderated). There are, after all, quite a number of rude, irrational, racist bullies out there who just want to use someone else's platform to call attention to themselves and feel powerful.


Also, not the point of this post, the Prof. Bonner's post, or the painting, but I do love that the illustration of "Frederick Douglass's Radical Imagination" depicts him wearing a shawl. I am sure that there are about a thousand different textual interpretations to make of that, but my thoughts go in two directions. First, who did the artist envision as making him the shawl? Anna, perhaps, or Rosetta, or even a granddaughter? Second, as someone who knits and crochets, I want to make Douglass a shawl. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

David Blight Off the Deaton Path

Two of my favorite gentleman discuss yet a third of my favorite gentlemen.

Stan Deaton, Senior Historian and the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society, interviews David Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, on his podcast "Off the Deaton Past."

Stan organized a fantastic NEH Seminar on African American history ages ago that took us throughout Savannah and onto the Sea Islands. (If you are a teacher at any level, I highly encourage you to look into these seminars and institutes.) He also introduced me to Walter O. Evans, who allowed me to research in the collection that David Blight describes here and portions of which have been published by Celeste Marie-Bernier and Andrew Taylor in If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection. Stan does a great job as an interviewer, just prompting David and letting him tell his stories. You just sit there rapt, listening to his insights.

(Also, so he won't feel left out, my #1 favorite gentleman is Douglas Egerton.)

Link here:

Monday, November 12, 2018

Upcoming AAIHS Online Forum

The African American Intellectual History Society will be hosting an online forum "Frederick Douglass @ 200" from Monday, 26 November, to Friday 30 November, 2018. That's the week after Thanksgiving. Vanderbilt professor of history, Brandon R. Byrd, whose specializes in Haiti, organized the roundtable, and invited this illustrious group of scholars to participate:

Oh, yes, and they invited me, too. My piece will be on Anna Douglass. I originally wanted to go in a different direction about Douglass and women's rights, but Carol Faulker did a much better job in her paper at the Paris conference, so I'm hoping that she publishes that. Then, after reading all of the reviews of David Blight's book, in which the reviewers still could not seem to understand Anna as more than a cliché of the long-suffering woman-behind-the-man (which is not how Blight portrays her, and certainly not how I wrote about her), I thought that I'd grant her some dignity by discussing some of the difficulties and the importance of understanding her as an historical actor.

I also confess that I am the reason that this roundtable was not published sooner. As mentioned at the beginning of my talk in Paris, my father died in September, which threw many things off the rails and required many an extension of deadlines, this being one. So, my apologies to the participants, organizers, and audience who anticipated this forum sooner. My gratitude also to Keisha N. Blain, the senior editor of Black Perspectives, as well as her staff, for being so patient with me.

This should be an exciting and interesting week of essays to read, given the different directions each scholar approaches our subject. Douglass is an endlessly fascinating man engaged in an endlessly fascinating era.